Sunday, 29 August 2010

Poor Ali…

Each time I closed my eyes, it was there! The pain! The bright lights! And his scream! His scream is what haunted me the most! But I had no choice! Did I? I was only 16! I heard the screams for no more than 10 minutes, and then it was all over! I was numb! No feelings of pain, no bright lights, and the whole world was drained of its colors! It was a black hole! And I was drifting in it! Ali! That was his name!

The early rays of sun always found their way into the small room, fighting through the thin withered drapes that hung on the only window. Accompanying the light and never failing to wake up were the car horns and the shouts of the peddlers that began crowding the narrow streets of Hamra. Slowly getting up from my bed, before having my regular breakfast which consisted of black tea and labneh with a few olives and a slice of tomato, I would say my morning prayers. Drawing away the drapes from the window and opening it up in order to allow the air in, along with the smell of freshly baked bread and other scents of the street which were not all nice, I would clean the table and tidy the room, which didn’t take any time at all, since all there was besides the small bed and a dresser was a table on which stood an old television set. In the corner there stood two suitcases above which was a small shelf with a few books, none of which I had ever read, but kept nonetheless since I thought they looked good. The only book which I have read and come to know by heart was the Koran that I had received as a gift from my mother on that awful day twelve years ago. The screams! Each time I closed my eyes or found myself with nothing to do, the screams would come back and tears would slowly find their way down my cheeks! Forgive me God!
Being twenty eight years old, most people would tell me that I have my whole life ahead of me! I did not! Working as a cleaning lady in this twelve story building was comforting! I’ve been leading this life for eleven years, and I was happy! Or at least as happy as God would permit me to be! I made enough to get me by, and did not have to pay rent! Besides, the families in the building were good to me. And was especially good to one of them.

The pains came and went! I couldn’t breathe! Sweat! Bright lights! The corridor, men in masks! I was bleeding! Pain! I prayed! Cried! Screams! Blackout!

I had not always lived in Hamra. But there was something about this area that always attracted me. The countless stores with their bright displays, the numerous cafes and restaurants. The street was always filled with people, both day and night. And you could hear the different dialects and even languages everywhere. Arabic, English, French, and other languages that I never knew. The area was alive. It was alive with the sounds of the church bells that preceded the cries of prayer from the mosques near by. It lived through the arguments of the men sitting in cafes discussing everything from politics to some new movie showing at the theater down the street, with much preference to the prior topic. And it lived through the trees, and the benches, through the children that ran up and down the roads. The area lived, and all this life around me refused to let me die.

On the fifth floor of the building in which I lived resided Mr. Elias Khoury with his wife Najwa and their son Allen. Mr. Elias always reminded me of an overweight penguin in his suit, carrying his little briefcase filled with documents. Each time I mentioned this to Allen, we would both laugh, but never shared our laughter with anyone, it was our secret. Being a lawyer, Mr.Elias spent most of his time outside his home. Najwa was a sophisticated and up to date on everything housewife. And by up to date I do not merely mean fashion and politics, the neighbors of the three closest houses and their lives are also included. I guess she was bored, and gossip was a cheap pass time activity. She was older than her husband, and everyone was surprised when they welcomed Allen into their family. Allen was loved. And his presence in the family seemed to shade over the awkward appearance of his always late for something father, or the overly perfumed and too neatly dressed mother. Allen made the family seem real. And he was loved. Not only by his parents…I loved him too. Since Mr. Elias was always late at work and his wife had to be out of the house in order not to jeopardize her social status among her many friends, Allen was under my supervision at least 4 days of the week. If it was up to me, I would have spent each day with him.

The nights were still hard. After praying, I would change into my nightgown and lay in bed for hours. I would hear the laughter of the youth returning to their cars after drinking at the pub that was around the corner. I would listen to the cars passing by with the music blasting loudly. But that’s not what kept me awake. Each time I would close my eyes, it would all come back to me. The corridor of bright lights. The pain. And the screams that I heard for a few minutes before I was left laying numb and deaf. The screams that haunted me still. I would take his photograph from beneath my pillow, kiss it, press it gently to my chest and wait for what I had accustomed to follow. The tears. The picture was taken a few years ago. A young child standing with his backpack and his lunchbox waiting for the bus. And the inscription that know one ever saw. Ali, 10 years old.

Oum Ali was nice! She was always smiling! Each morning she would wait with me in front of the house for the school bus to pick me up, and she would be there waiting each time the bus dropped me back. My mother always packed nutritious meals for me, but they weren’t always tasty. Oum Ali made sure to slip me a chocolate bar each morning. It was one of our secrets. Her face was strange. Not ugly strange, just sad. She always seemed tired and had black circles beneath her eyes. And each time she looked at me, I could see tears hidden behind her smile. No one in the building, including my parents knew why she was called Oum Ali, since she wasn’t married and didn’t have any children. It was just the way she introduced herself my mother told me, and no one really questioned it. Every time she met me after school on days when my parents weren’t home, I would promise my self that I would ask her about her name, and where her son Ali was, but each time I decided to postpone it. It wasn’t polite according to my mother. But I just wanted to know.

Oum Ali was a poor sweet woman. She had never quarreled with anyone, and did everything that her job had asked of her and more. Our building was always spotless, and everyone’s mail was always delivered. She had taken a liking to our son and took good care of him. My husband and I had wanted to hire a housekeeper who would look after him, but we both figured that since Allen got along great with Oum Ali, there was no need. We had offered to pay her for the help, but even though we knew the extra cash would greatly help her, she never accepted any pay. So instead I would get her foods, clothes and other trivial things whenever I could. She had moved into our building as a cleaning lady after Allen turned six months old. And it was she who had volunteered to look after him whenever we needed a babysitter. Poor thing though, we never actually questioned why she introduced herself as Oum Ali. Who could have guessed?

I stare at Mrs.Khoury and different thoughts creep into my head. Not all of them are nice I must confess. But she’s a good mother I tell myself. She takes good care of Allen. He’s got everything. I guess one person’s misery is another one’s joy. Life is not fair, but all know that without me mentioning it. I did the right thing I tell myself. It’s not like I had a choice. I was only 16. My mother forced me. Dad didn’t even know. And still, there is always this one thought…what if?

One day after I had done all the chores and had spoiled myself with the falafel and hommos for lunch I decided to finally do it. He has the right to know I convinced myself. He deserves to know the truth if he ever seeks to find it.
Allen was sitting in his room doing his studies when I knocked before entering and asked him for a piece of paper and a pen. He asked me if I wanted to write down the lotto numbers as I usually did for his mother and father, I lied…and said yes.

That night I prayed, asking God for the strength to write down and immortalize what I have been trying to erase from memory for the past twelve years. And then I thanked God for keeping it all so vividly in my head. I wrote the letter, which was not very long and not as beautiful as they turn out in the novels or movies. It was the blunt truth. Nothing to make me seem like a victim. No excuses. Just the truth. I put the letter into an envelope and sealed it with a signature which made me smile, “To Ali.”

I guess what made me write the letter last week was the reason that I knew that I didn’t have much more time. By the time the doctors examined me at the AUH hospital during their charity event when people with no insurance could get an appointment and be examined, I had known that it was not cold nor food poisoning that made me ache all over. I had cancer. It was too late to operate. But I smiled at the news. At least I thought, I would be able to sleep without the flashbacks of the corridor of bright lights and the never ending haunting screams of the newborn.

According to the doctors I had approximately a month to live. They will be proved to be wrong. I had two weeks at most I thought. I felt that I would not make it to Allen’s birthday that was in exactly twenty three days from today. He will be turning thirteen. I guess some superstitious people will point out the unlucky number thirteen. I laugh at their concerns. Silly people.

I woke up feeling worse then ever today. Now that I think of it the term woke up is a lie, I never really slept last night, and for the first time it wasn’t that memory that kept me awake. I spent the night on my knees in front of the toilet throwing up the small portion of food I had that day. So when the sun rose up, and the street outside was coming alive with the noise I got out of my bed and placed the letter I had written in Mr. and Mrs. Khourys’ mailbox. After that I went back to my room, for the first time in almost thirteen years without sweeping the entrance of our building. I went back to my bed, placed the photograph of Ali that I always kept under the pillow close to my chest, and I guess in the duration of an hour give or take took my last breath.

When I found the letter in our mailbox I was confused. It never really hit me until later that day I had found out that poor Oum Ali was found dead in her apartment with a picture of Allen in her hands. It was then that everything made sense. I had read the letter over and over. Elias read it not less than a hundred times himself. It was only the addressee of the letter that never actually read its content. And he never will. This I promised myself and my husband. From the look on my face he realized that I was not going to change my mind and all he could say was…you’re right.
I stayed awake all night blaming myself for not seeing what was right there in front of my eyes this whole time. I could not give birth, and so we decided to adopt. We had adopted a child almost thirteen years ago, but no one in our neighborhood knew of this off course.
Oum Ali was Allen’s birth mother. She had to give him up for adoption unwillingly, and had spent the next six months searching for him. After she had found us she simply wanted to be as close as possible to her son. And know she wanted to let him know all this. Never! As long as Allen knows and will never doubt, I am his mother.
I burned the letter outside our house the following day.

I was very sad when my mother told me that Oum Ali had passed away. Who’s going to slip me bars of chocolate every day? Who’s going to wait for me for the bus, and be there when I come back from school? Who’s going to sit with me when my parents are out? I guess my mother will have to hire a housekeeper. I miss Oum Ali. She was nice. And what upset me the most, was that I never had enough courage to ask her about her name. But I was sure that somewhere there is a kid that’s even more upset than I am. Poor Ali, I don’t even want to imagine what it’s like to lose a mother.